The tweet said: ‘Your bio says She-devil.’ This comment was made in response to a reply I sent to another tweet soliciting opinions on a particular subject. My first, pre-coffee, thought was: ‘Yes, I know, I typed it myself.’ But as the coffee was brewing I had a second thought: given the subject matter, it was, in a way, quite an apt observation.
In reality, it was probably just that person’s way of disagreeing with me, suggesting that the reason I hold that particular opinion is because I am a proudly amoral person; or maybe, knowing which country many of the comments came from, they were stating the belief that I am, quite literally, in league with the Devil. (I’m taking no chances — I’ve hastily re-homed my black cat, Be’elzebubbles just in case I get a knock on the door from the Witchfinder General. Does anyone know if a Vileda mop counts as a broomstick?)
Describing myself as a ‘She-devil’ in my Twitter bio isn’t an attempt to make myself look ‘edgy’ or ‘fun’. I was inspired by the Fay Weldon novel, or rather a quote from it: ‘Peel away the wife, the mother, find the woman, and there the she-devil is.’ For it is when we cast off the roles that society ordains for us and give rein to who we really are underneath our tunic of compliance that we find our voice, our power. And society really doesn’t like it when you do that — it will villify and villainise you, and do everything it can to cow you and whip you back inside your little pigeon-hole.
Of course, as a white, abled, cis-gendered woman it is relatively easy for me to shake off convention, to speak with my own voice, and to expect that some people, at least, will listen. But it is not so easy for everyone.
Take people with Down’s Syndrome for example. Society casts them in the role of perpetual child; dependent; victim, and uses learning disability as the excuse and the means to deny them a voice or any kind of identity outside of the one that it prescribes.
And the thread I was replying to concerned exactly this.
A group of performers with Down’s Syndrome were due to perform on September 7th at Project 1 by ArtPrize, an arts event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the invitation of DisArt, a group that works to showcase the talents of people with disabilities. But last week congressional candidate Peter Meijer, the owner of Tanglefoot — the venue that they were booked to perform at — decided not to allow them to perform in his building.
The performers are Drag Syndrome — the world’s first collective of Drag artists with Down’s Syndrome. Drag Syndrome is a production of Culture Device, an innovative dance company for professional dancers with Down’s Syndrome.
Meijer detailed his reasons for withdrawing the venue in a letter: stating that neither he nor the audience could know whether the artists were in a position to give their full and informed consent. He cited concerns about the ‘potential exploitation of the vulnerable’ and said that the ‘differently abled’ were ‘special souls’, who, like children, should be protected. As far as I know he had not, at this point, met or spoken to any members of Drag Syndrome, or the Artistic Director. Anyone who has heard the members of Drag Syndrome speak for themselves, as I have, will be left in no doubt that they are perfectly capable of giving informed consent, and that they know exactly what Drag is all about. If Mr. Meijer was genuinely concerned about the performers why not make a few calls, speak to the people involved, and take it from there? But he didn’t do this: instead he simply made the decision based on his own ignorance and prejudice.
By comparing people with Down’s Syndrome to children, Peter Meijer infantilizes them, and refuses to recognise them as adults who know their own minds, can make decisions, and have opinions and ambitions of their own. I wonder, do Peter Meijer and all those who agree with his decision, believe that people with Down’s Syndrome should not be allowed to participate at all in decisions concerning themselves, or that they should not be allowed to take employment, or engage in hobbies, activities or relationships in case they risk exploitation or abuse? Should ‘they’ be made to stay safely inside the ‘perpetual-dependent-child-cum-victim’ box because that’s just easier for everyone else?
Exploitation is a legitimate concern, of course. But do Mr. Meijer and others who profess themselves ‘concerned’ imagine that people with Down’s Syndrome exist in a vacuum without families, friends, or other supporters who will help and advise them, and make sure they know what they’re getting into, and aren’t being exploited or abused?
I wonder, if the performers had been going to enact a Shakespearean drama, or if Culture Device had been booked to dance, whether the congressional candidate would have questioned whether or not the actors were able to give their consent. Or if he would ever think to question whether the performers were being paid the same rate as everyone else? Somehow I doubt it.
Peter Meijer is not a lone voice. When the show was announced others began campaigning for it to be cancelled. But are their actions really motivated by concerns about potential exploitation, or by a desire to impose censorship?
Many of those who feel the show should be cancelled, that Drag Syndrome should not exist, talk about ‘innocent souls’ being exposed to ‘perversion’ and ‘evil’. In one fell swoop they stigmatise people with Down’s Syndrome as having no more agency than performing circus animals, and demonise gay people as sexual predators who actively seek to ‘corrupt’ and abuse other people. Here we have ableism, homophobia and transphobia all wrapped up in one neat, nasty little package. The members of Drag Syndrome ARE being exploited — by the people who are using fake concern for their welfare as a stick to bash the gay community,
Drag is closely associated with gay culture — but it does not begin and end with it. Men dressed or disguised as women have featured in traditional customs and rituals for centuries, and are a widespread cultural phenomenon. Drag has long roots that reach far back through music hall, opera and stage acting, right the way back to ancient religious ritual.
Drag is not about sex. Drag is a performance art. Drag is about transformation and freedom of expression. It has always been a tool for liberation, a platform for people to unbox themselves from conventional expressions of gender and sexuality. Drag artists can be of any sexual orientation or gender identity.
Drag Syndrome continues this tradition, this mission of shattering expectations and defying perceptions. It offers people with Down’s Syndrome a platform to shirk societal perceptions of what the condition is, to inform audiences and empower performers.
Drag allows performers of all kinds to find their power and explode out of the restrictive little pigeon-holes that the world would like to keep them in. And a lot of people out there really, really don’t like that one bit. The feel entitled to always have their comfort zone respected.
Well, tough titty, baby — the world is not only your oyster to enjoy.